Auction Steals and Deals Pt. I: The 6 Things You Should Buy from the Block

So, last weekend was the holiday weekend, and while many of you were grilling, cruising the lakes on your boats, hanging out at the beach, I was … trolling auction websites for deals.

Yes, I’m obsessed, and I drive my husband crazy with it. It’s not like I’m even looking for things for our own home right now. Until we get to the hallway (October, yippee! Stay tuned.), and eventually make my youngest son Lee’s room into a big boy room, I’m kinda maxed out on decorating spaces in our house. That’s one of those reasons for this blog and business — to give me something to do and create in between our own projects.

Big holiday weekends mean big auctions, and all the Baby Boomers are hoping you’re going to buy the stuff they don’t want to take with them when they downsize to their Florida condos. The biggest weekends are Memorial Day and Labor Day, but the 4th ain’t too shabby either. Now, an auction can be intimidating. There’s the competition. Where do you think all those expensive antique stores (I’m not talking the junk stores and antique malls) get their stuff? At auction. The dealers bring moving trucks to the big ones, then they mark their finds up at least 300-400%. I’m not kidding. Nor do I begrudge them their profit. They have stuff that sits in their stores for years hogging up inventory space before it might move. Not to mention the “curation” (less fancy terminology: “choosing things that fit a style”), hours spent, miles driven, gas consumed, refurbishment effort involved, etc. It’s a valid finders fee.

But don’t be shy.  If a dealer is looking to earn a profit, he or she may not be as willing to go as high as you are for a special piece. Nor is everyone looking for the same type of thing. If you’re just looking fill your empty new abode with furniture, you probably won’t be competing with serious dealers. For example, those mid-century antique reproductions we talked about last week are not on their short list. A lot of other items aren’t either.

In addition to the holiday weekend auctions, there are the average, everyday estate auctions that come in between and throughout the year. Your chances of getting what you want for less are even better then.

I’m going to tell you what types of things you can find good deals on and what prices to expect. In Part II of this post (next week), I will tell you where and how to shop auctions, as well as my lessons learned. Here we go!

The Best Buys on the Auction Block

In my years of attending auctions, I’ve noticed a number of trends in types of things that ended up being (surprisingly) in my price range. They are:

  • Sterling Silver Flatware (Someday anyway. Still waiting on this puppy — when the house decorating is done!)
  • Bone China Sets
  • Vintage Oriental Rugs (many kinds)
  • Mid-Century to Modern Reproductions of Antique Furniture
  • Vintage Original Art
  • “Golden Age” Grand Pianos

Of course there are other, real antiques to be found at good prices. Welsh step-back cupboards, corner cabinets, dining table and chair sets (alone and together), chandeliers of every style and period, even modern designer furniture (especially in Westchester County and California, you lucky dogs) — but the above list are items where I’ve found the largest discrepancy between auction price and resale price and where the best deals are to be had.

Keep in mind, when you buy at auction, you’re buying a previously loved piece. Wear and tear commensurate with age and use is to be expected. But then you don’t have to worry as much if you nick it with the vacuum cleaner.

Sterling Silver Flatware

When my husband and I got married, we were young and all our friends and family too poor to buy us silver. We didn’t even bother to register for it. I’m not descended from a debutante who may leave it to me either. However, I love to make fancy dinners, have people over, and bring out the nice tableware. When the budget permits, I’m gonna get me some silver.

Gorham Hispana-Sovereign
Gorham Hispana-Sovereign

On Replacements.com, a service for 12 of Gorham Hispana-Sovereign sterling is $4,999.00. Yet the set above (also for 12) sold for $1,400.00 on June 18, 2016. And that seems to be the trend. Depending upon the desirability of the style, how scratched it is, whether there is a monogram, etc., a service for 12 will run $1,200-$2,500. Less for a service for 8. Not too bad.

Bone China

If we didn’t register for silver, we also didn’t register for china. Our tiny NYC apartment wouldn’t allow for it, even had people given us some. But with our tax return one year, we bought:

Wedgewood Columbia Sage Green

I absolutely adore it, and it coordinates beautifully with my dining room; let’s be honest, I practically designed my dining room around it and the rug that I found around the same time. There’s nary a scratch or a bit of crazing. One single plate costs $109.95 on Replacements. I spent $850 for a 5 piece service for 12. I bought some gilt Limoges soup bowls (soup bowls weren’t included) on eBay for $100. And now, at Thanksgiving and other dinners, I get to display this:

Dining Room 6
Photo by Eric Roth

My most recent favorite meal for entertaining — gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches with salad and tomato soup. Even if they weren’t nearly the best thing on Earth already, the way I serve them would make them look like they were.

Lisa Luby Ryan in Veranda
Lisa Luby Ryan in Veranda

Fine china and sterling. Anyone see anything wrong with the above picture? I don’t.

Vintage Oriental Rugs

In my book, using Oriental rugs never went out of style, as long as they are used judiciously throughout a home in combination with more neutral and modern alternatives and with your color palette in mind. You will find nothing more durable for pets (including children and husbands) and they have fantastic stain resistance. We have three — one in our bedroom, one by the fireplace in the library (the book side has a modern Wilton Weave bound carpet in a neutral — mixing it up, like I said), and one in the dining room. All came from auctions and were about the price, if not less, than buying from a Big Box Store.

Lots of people think that Orientals are out of their price range, but not at auction or on Craigslist. I highly recommend buying ones that you can feel and touch, rather than going the eBay route. I usually  like to feel how rugs would be underfoot and assess the amount of wear they show in person. Also, since color is so important to me, I like to be sure that what I’m seeing on my monitor is the same as what I’m buying (iPhone photos can be pretty inexact color-wise). But that’s just me. Caveat — unless it’s a highly respected brand. Then you can decide if you want to chance it.

Occasionally you can find unexpected color combinations, and those are the ones that send a thrill down my spine. They can serve as the launching point for an entire color scheme. Here’s is an amazing rug we found for a client in California. I kid you not, it is fuchsia, gold, and teal. This one was Craigslist, not auction, but we found it for similar pricing. $800.

Sarah Bed 1

Miles Redd always plays by his own rules. He loves to take inspiration from a vintage Oriental. Olive, and teal anyone?

Miles Redd
Miles Redd

This baby is up for auction on July 10 — that’s tomorrow folks, for all of you within spitting distance of the metro Boston area!! The estimate is $700-$1,200, with an opening bid of $350. Anyone interested? I can’t get over the pumpkin, periwinkle blue, and GREEN! Throw in your neutrals, and this could be the foundation of an amazing space. Heck, could be a great palette for an entire home.

Kaminski rig
Indo Heriz Serapi Carpet

Mid-Century to Modern Reproductions of Antique Furniture

I talked about the steals to be had on reproduction brown furniture in my last post. Auctions are a great place to find them. The below sideboard from Baker Furniture, the granddaddy of high quality, sold for $750 in Chicago last year.

Baker Sideboard

A similar piece currently listed at Baker’s outlet, Baker Odds and Ends, costs $5,434 and it still needs some refinishing (probably a showroom sample).

Vintage Original Art

I’m all for buying art from living artists and have done so, but their need to eat and have shelter over their heads can make their wares more pricey, especially for the bigger pieces. Artwork by unknown, or nearly unknown artists (even if listed) who no longer need keep body and soul together (they are, in fact, dead), can be a less expensive alternative, especially if you’re just beginning to build your collection. Consider it an homage. Or, if the artist is still alive, they’ve already sold their work once, so ease your conscience.

Here are some pieces that I’ve bookmarked over the last year. All sold for around $500 or less. You can easily spend that on a framed print that lots of people already have on their walls. If you go up to $1,000, some amazing pieces are at your fingertips. Keep in mind shipping and packing if you’re bidding long distance though. A large work can cost around $250, and a really large work, over 36″, can be more, so figure that into your budget.

Donald Purdy, 30" x 26", $400
Donald Purdy, 30″ x 26″, $400
Pietro Cervi, 8" x 12", $100
Pietro Cervi, 8″ x 12″, $100
Kristjan Magnusson, 31" x 23", $300
Kristjan Magnusson, 31″ x 23″, $300
Omar Malva, 39" x 47", $550
Omar Malva, 39″ x 47″, $550
Bill Shumway, 42" x 39", $550
Bill Shumway, 42″ x 39″, $550

“Golden Age” Grand Pianos

“The late 19th and early 20th centuries represented the golden age of piano-making in America. Many companies manufactured excellent pianos, and competition in the industry was fierce. Additionally, raw materials and highly-skilled craftsmen were far more abundant than they are today. Vintage American and European pianos are widely acknowledged as being among the finest ever made. Superior, aged, solid woods were used, with excellent veneer work on the cases and beautiful, durable finishes. Pianos were almost entirely hand-made, as opposed to today’s machine-made units. The depression, the gramophone, and World War II are all reasons cited for the drastic reduction in demand [and quality] for pianos after 1930.

The current state of piano-making is a much less happy affair for the piano-buyer. Japanese, Korean, Chinese and Russian companies, among others, sell huge numbers of pianos not because of the quality of their work, but because they have mastered efficiency and speed in production and their labor wages are often much lower than in the U.S. and Europe…. Many pianos today are made with pressed particle board, laminated soundboards and polyester finishes. Clearly, no one will be rebuilding most of today’s pianos fifty years from now as they will have been a thing of the past.”

-by Shaffer Pianos

Again, I always go for the best value for my dollar, so I gravitate toward rebuilt pianos. Find the serial number on the piano and then check it on the Blue Book of Pianos to find the year. ALWAYS have it checked out by a piano tech to get a restoration estimate before bidding, but if you’re serious about getting a good instrument, this extra step and consultation cost is worth the effort. Names to look for in particular:

  • Steinway (obviously)
  • Mason & Hamlin
  • Knabe
  • Ivers & Pond
  • Baldwin

There are always exceptions. As these pianos were handmade, a company that generally made a mid-quality instrument sometimes produced an individual piece the sound of which outsized its pedigree. Ours is actually a 1927 art case from Howard (built by Baldwin). Not one of those super-top-of-the-line, but it has a surprisingly big sound (thanks to our piano tech, Keith Comparetto of Allegro Piano Works) who rebuilt the whole thing. Ultimately, it’s a matter of what your ear loves and what your piano tech thinks he/she can bring out of it.

Here’s a recent auction Steinway from NY state. No cracks in soundboard, but I’m sure it needs some work. Only a tech onsite could tell you how much.

Steinway, 1921, $4,500,
Steinway M, 1921, $4,500

Here, a fully restored Steinway M from 1919 is going for $36,500. I’m not saying that this piano isn’t worth that price, but you might be able to save multiple thousands by buying a good condition instrument at auction and having it refurbished/built. It’s worth checking out if you’re a serious musician.

Coming Up Next Week

So, you may be thinking, “Amy, I love the stuff, but it’s all just so much to take in. How do I begin to even find these things?” My friend, I will tell you, but it will have to be next week. 🙂

What do you think? Would you like to incorporate pieces like these into your own homes? Got something like the above and stuck with what to do with it? Let me hear from you!

Until next time!



2 thoughts on “Auction Steals and Deals Pt. I: The 6 Things You Should Buy from the Block”

  1. Thank you, Amy, for helping us find two gorgeous, designer Kravet Marjorca chairs for our living room for only $500 total!! We couldn’t have found (or afforded) them without you!!

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